For years large companies have enjoyed many advantages over smaller firms. Economies of scale. The ability to pay higher salaries to recruit talent. International networks and outsourcing to help maximize speed and cut prices. Perhaps most important, the big firms employ teams of lobbyists in Washington, D.C., to help them nail down government contracts, win favorable regulations, and persuade Congress to pass legislation helping them on a range of issues. Though small companies have their own trade associations that lobby in Washington, the power of these lobbyists pales in comparison to behemoths like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which focuses on broader business issues and is generally considered the most powerful business lobbyist in the capitol.
Now one boutique lobbying firm in Washington is pushing back. Led by Paul Kanitra, a veteran lobbyist who has advocated for smaller players like the Associated Locksmiths of America, Keys to the Capitol represents individual small companies. Charging far less than the tens of thousands per month in retainers large lobbyists require, Kanitra hopes his firm will attract entrepreneurs, as well as smaller towns and associations, that are looking for lobbyists. Despite opening just a few months ago, Kanitra’s six-employee company already boasts six clients and has garnered interest from many more business owners.
“When we looked around, we found there was no one else doing this type of work,” says Kanitra. “From working for the locksmiths and other clients, I understood the needs of small companies and how hard it was for them to get a hearing in Washington. It can be a bewildering place if you don’t have the background here.”
Keys to the Capitol’s business model cuts out a lot of the fat large lobbyists incorporate, like exorbitant expenses and meals, which is how he can offer rates many small companies can afford — as little as $995 a month for a retainer. “[The big lobbyists] work so much extra money into their lobbying contracts,” Kanitra says. “We are frugal, and every month we give our clients a detailed overview of exactly how we spent our time on their behalf.”
Kanitra leaves lobbying on issues such as health-care reform and the estate tax to small business associations like the National Federation of Independent Business. “They lobby on broad issues, but they don’t represent one business,” he says. “You can still be an NFIB member and hire an individual lobbyist.”
Keys to the Capitol takes a more targeted approach, helping individual businesses tackle specific issues. “We help clients get products through specific government regulations or assist them in obtaining RFPs [requests for proposals] for government contracts or making contacts at one key government agency,” he says. “Let’s say you are a small manufacturer of swimwear, and you need government approval for your product in order to sell it. You could come to us.”
One of Kanitra’s clients, for example, developed a program to combat fraud in federal agencies. But the firm needs to convince an agency that the program makes sense and that the company has the skill and resources to pull off the program. “[The client] might not have the contacts at the right government agencies to make their pitch, so they need someone to open the doors, to make the pitch for them,” Kanitra says. He works with the client to tailor the pitch to the right government agency, and then he uses his connections to get the client in the door to see someone with the power to decide on the business’s issue. Without such introductions, companies could be lost, wandering through a maze of federal agencies looking for the right contact.
Indeed at times Kanitra serves as a kind of educator, helping entrepreneurs understand how the Washington game works. “I’m often the first lobbyist they’ve ever dealt with,” he says.
Still, does hiring a lobbyist make sense for an individual small company? For a firm that deals only with state contracts or regulators or doesn’t have any significant federal contracts, it might not be an effective use of funds. But for a business that deals repeatedly with federal agencies, needs its local congressperson onboard to get a project approved, or could take advantage of a loophole in a specific law, hiring an individual lobbyist could be a wise move. And at under $1,000 per month — less than a business owner would pay for the cleaning service that washes down their office floors at night — it just might be worth it.
Joshua Kurlantzick is the author of Charm Offensive: How China’s Soft Power Is Transforming the World.